A History of Georgetown, South Carolina

Georgetown County Court House - Georgetown, SC (2007)

What is present-day Georgetown County was first settled by colonists in the 1720s. The town of Georgetown was established in 1729 with the official port following in 1732. During this early period, Georgetown was part of Craven County, which was further divided into parishes by the Parish Act of 1706. The first parish established for this area was Prince George's, Winyah Parish, established in 1721, probably indicating the earliest point in time that significant numbers of settlers began to find their way into the area from points further south.

In 1734, the western half of present-day Georgetown County became part of the newly developed Prince Frederick's Parish, which included that half of present Georgetown County as well as most of present-day Williamsburg, Marion, and Florence Counties. In 1767, All Saints Parish was established, and this parish included the coastal part of present-day Georgetown County and the coastal half of present-day Horry County.

In 1768, the District Act created the Georgetown District, which included all of present-day Georgetown, Horry, Marion, Dillon, and most of Florence Counties. This law was repealed by the British Parliament, but a second Act was soon approved in 1769. Right after the American Revolution, this large Georgetown District was divided into four smaller districts: Winyah (which was renamed Georgetown District in 1800 and whose boundaries are the same today as Georgetown County); Liberty (which was renamed Marion District in 1798), Kingston (which was renamed Horry District in 1801), and Williamsburg (which essentially remained the same, with minor changes in boundaries, to this day).

The Spanish were the first Europeans to visit present-day Georgetown County. In 1526, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon came to establish a colony in the New World. In what he described as latitude 33 degrees and 40 minutes, he entered a large river which he named the Rio Jordan, evidence of the first discovery of the Cape Fear River. De Ayllon did not settle along the Cape Fear, but went further south to Winyah Bay, almost exactly where the town of Georgetown was established much later in 1729. De Ayllon abandoned this settlement soon after landing, however, never to return to the area. He went on to settle along the Georgia coast, where he was killed in 1526 by unfriendly natives.

Naval Stores were the primary source of business in early Georgetown for many years. As the full moon of change rose over the felled pines that profited pitch, turpentine, rosin, and timber for shipbuilding, new and richer uses of the land were coming into existence.

The War of Jenkins Ear, a war of vanity between England and the French, Portuguese, and Spanish traders left England without a source of the coveted Royal Blue Indigo dye. As the indigo plant grew wild all along the coastal plains, it was a natural transition for the cleared land to be used for cultivating indigo. Indigo is the rarest of dyes, because blue is the most difficult color to produce in a dye.

Georgetown County indigo came in three colors: fine copper, purple, and fine flora. Trade was brisk, and created fortunes that rivaled the wealth of the royalty of Europe. An aristocratic society of plantation owners was established, and they formed the Winyah Indigo Society. Land was donated and a grand hall was built with rich red brick, which many years later became the home of the area's first free school. It still stands today in the city as a monument to Georgetown's heritage.

However, by the end of the 18th century, great quantities of the dye were being produced in India and the East Indies, glutting the market. As the price fell, Georgetown planters began turning to rice cultivation, which was in worldwide demand. It was indigo, however, that gave Georgetown County its first real economic wealth, creating an aristocratic society of planters, as well as aiding in the area's ability to sever ties with England due to its financial independence.

Wild, perennial indigo plants still bloom in the spring along the roadsides of Georgetown County, 200 years after the industry was abandoned.

One of the area's most vocal and powerful planters was Thomas Lynch, Jr., who was one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. He built his home on the banks of the Santee river, and named it Hopsewee (combining the names of the Hop and See Wee tribes).

Another area planter, Christopher Gadsden of Beneventum plantation is remembered for the flag he designed: "Don't Tread on Me!" He was a wealthy merchant, a Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, and elected governor, but declined to serve, in 1782.

As the Revolutionary War began, local planter Francis Marion, the legendary "Swamp Fox," along with a ragged band of followers, almost single-handedly defeated the British in this area.

In 1791, a victorious President George Washington, on his southern tour, recognized these heroes from the steps of the Masonic Lodge in Georgetown, SC.

As the county prospered, gracious living became the status quo. Elegant plantation mansions with formal tea gardens, sprawling lawns, corridors of live oaks, called "allees," all were hallmarks of southern aristocracy. Planter families were well-traveled and well-educated; they raised thoroughbred horses and drank fine European wines.

Pawleys Island and Litchfield Beaches became in a real sense, the first resort area in America. Some say that since they were separated from the mainland by large salt marshes, malaria-bearing mosquitoes could not fly across them. Pawleys Island in particular became a favorite refuge of the wealthy planter families, some of whose homes are still standing today.

Georgetown Business District

As the state's third oldest city, Georgetown dates back to 1729 when the town was laid out by Elisha Screven. The four-by-eight block grid is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This area is bordered by Wood, Church, Meeting, and Front Streets, with Front Street running alongside the Sampit River. A bustling seaport in colonial times, tall-masted sailing ships laden with goods from Europe docked here and left with the trade products of the lowcountry - indigo in the mid 1700s - and rice, cotton, and lumber in later years.

Georgetown's Hebrew cemetery (c.1772) was begun by South Carolina's second oldest Jewish community. The older graves in the center of the cemetery have graves that are turned toward the east so that those buried there would face Jerusalem. In later years, due to lack of space, graves were laid perpendicular to the cemetery's wrought iron boundaries. The cemetery is usually locked, but it is easily viewed from the sidewalk at 400 Broad Street.

Built circa 1750, with old brick from British ships' ballasts, the Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church was twice held by enemy troops; British troops during the Revolutionary War and Union troops during the American Civil War. Legend has it that horses were quartered in the stall-sized boxed pews of the church sanctuary during these wars. Badly damaged and pillaged during the Civil War, Prince George's altar was rebuilt and installed with English stained glass saved from a decimated plantation chapel. The churchyard of Prince George borders Broad, Duke, and Highmarket Streets. Sanctuary tours conducted by docents of the church are Monday - Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from March through October. Donations are always welcome.

At the intersection of Front and Screven Streets, one sees the c.1845 town clock and clock tower bell, over which - according to local tradition - a feisty Georgetown lady spread a Confederate flag during the Union occupation of the town harbor during the Civil War. The Rice Museum is located in the Old Market Building (circa 1842), below the clock and bell tower. The museum features dioramas depicting the production of rice and indigo as well as artifacts from these operations, maps and other exhibits. Rice Museum opens Monday - Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

After the Civil War, Georgetown's former slaves founded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The new denomination incorporated African tradition with Methodist and Episcopalian elements of the churches they had attended as slaves. The church became the hub of the post-Civil War black community. The original 1866 building was replaced by the present church, located at 417 Broad Street, in 1882. The church is only open for services or guided tours with advanced reservations. Donations are always welcome.

The Kaminski House was built on a bluff with a panoramic view of the Sampit River. Located at 1003 Front Street, it was the home of Confederate sea captain Thomas Gaddett. Owned in later years by Naval Commander and Mrs. Kaminski, they willed the house to the city of Georgetown. Kaminski House is filled with antiques collected by the Kaminskis. Among this collection are distinctive Charleston-made pieces, a fifteenth century Spanish wedding chest, a Chippendale dining table, and a locking tea stand. There is an observation deck overlooking the river and a gift shop in the old butler's quarters. Tours Monday - Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission.

Surrounding the Rice Museum is LaFayette Park. An oasis of flowers, herbs, and other greenery is lovingly tended by a local garden club. Adjacent to the park is Harborwalk, a 1,000-foot long, 12-foot wide boardwalk at waters edge. Underway is an extension that will double the length. Behind Harborwalk are the back door entries and pastel awnings of the charming Front Street shops, restaurants and upstairs residences. The restaurants all have a harbor view, some open to seabreeze dining.

On the street side, the pace is unhurried. Unique shops, restaurants, homes, and museums line the well-kept, lantern-lighted street. An added attraction is the Strand Theater. This Art-Deco building is in the League of Historic American Theater listings. The marquee is original, and the 1940s-style box office was built for the movie "Made in Heaven." A local theater group, The Swamp Fox Players, uses the Strand for performances.

Be sure to wander off Front Street in the 220-acre historic district. The district is compact, and light blue markers identify the historic structures. A walk or drive through the live-oak lined streets will be well rewarded. Guided tours by tram, horse-drawn carriage or on foot are also available for expanded narratives.

Surveyed by William Swinton - In Deed Dated January 16, 1734 of Elisha Screven

In "The History of Georgetown County, South Carolina," by George C. Rogers, Jr. - University of South Carolina Press, 1971, on Page 32, he provides:

"George Hunter, later surveyor-general of the province, had visited Winyah to ascertain its qualifications for a port. He wrote on his map, dated May 21, 1730:

'At Wineaw Bar I sounded the Channel and at Low Water neap Tides found 10 foot water. At High Water Spring Tides there rise 16-1/2 feet. And the same water, has at Georges Town on Sampit Creek 4 fathom. Georges Town was laid out in Lots & sold last year [1729] to people who are obliged to build a House in 15 Months. They expect there a port of Entry to ease them of the freight to Charles Town. They have one foot less water or there abouts than Charles Town.'

"Therefore, when Robert Johnson arrived in South Carolina in December 1730, Georgetown was already laid out. The royal authorities must have acted in 1731 to make Georgetown a port of entry, since the Gazette for April 1, 1732, reported a rumor that Georgetown had been made a free port and on June 24 added that Peter Goudett had been appointed collector and naval officer there."

As Georgetown Court House, the town was granted a U.S. Post Office on April 22, 1790, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Abraham Cohen. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.
Click Here to view / download a 2017 map of Georgetown, SC. Adobe PDF file. Fairly large.

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